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Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with scientists, representing the Siberian branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences, in Novosibirsk, Russia February 8, 2018. Sputnik/Alexei Nikolskyi/Kremlin via REUTERS(reuters_tickers)
By Bart H. Meijer
AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - Dutch Foreign Minister Halbe Zijlstra admitted on Monday he had lied about hearing Russian President Vladimir Putin make comments about plans for a "greater Russia", unleashing a storm of criticism.
"I told an untruth, it was unacceptable," he told reporters. Zijlstra, who is scheduled to meet his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in Moscow in two days' time, said he had been "stupid" and regretted his behaviour.
While election campaigning two years ago, Zijlstra said that in 2006 he had been at Putin's dacha when he heard the Kremlin leader speak of plans for a "greater Russia" which would include some of Russia's neighbours.
"I was tucked away back in the room, but I could clearly hear Putin's answer to the question about what he considered greater Russia," Zijlstra told a gathering in 2016 of his People's Party for Freedom and Democracy, which heads the new Dutch government.
"He said this included Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and the Baltic states, and, well, Kazakhstan would be 'nice to have'," he said in his speech, which was recorded on video.
But on Monday he acknowledged he had never been at the meeting with Putin and had heard of the comments secondhand.
"I wasn't present at the meeting in President Putin's dacha," the minister said in statement on Monday.
"The discussion did take place and someone who was there told me what President Putin said about greater Russia."
Zijlstra said he was prepared to discuss the matter with parliament, which has the power to dismiss him.
His admission led opposition parties to demand his resignation, but the governing parties stood by him.
Prime Minister Mark Rutte said Zijlstra had a made a "big mistake", but remained a credible member of the government.
In a scathing editorial, the prominent daily business newspaper Het Financieele Dagblad called on the minister to step down.
"Staying on would undermine the credibility of the Cabinet. Not only in criticising Russia, but also in the campaign against fake news," it wrote.
Zijlstra is to meet Russian minister Lavrov on Wednesday. Relations between the two countries have been poor since the downing of Malaysia Airlines MH17 over eastern Ukraine in July 2014, killing all 283 passengers and 15 crew. The airliner had been flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, and 196 of the victims were Dutch.
Dutch authorities say it was brought down by a Russian-made Buk missile, fired from territory held by pro-Russia separatists, and hope to identify suspects to be put on trial in the Netherlands.
It is not clear how far Russia will cooperate with a Dutch court. Moscow denies one of its rockets could have been used against the airliner.
(Reporting by Bart Meijer; Editing by Andrew Roche)